|Buster Crabbe as Kaspa the Lion Man in King of the Jungle (1933)|
Although King of the Jungle (1933) was inspired by the success of the earlier Tarzan, the Ape Man, the character of Kaspa is very different from that of Tarzan. While Tarzan is presented from the outset as a fully mature, wily, and even fearsome hunter, Kaspa is gentle, a sexually developed but naïve boy-man/male-female, straddling age and gender in very interesting ways.
The first time we see the adult Kaspa (Buster Crabbe), he is cuddling lion cubs, and looks more like a big muscular baby in a diaper playing with stuffed animals. Later, dialogue drives home the point that Kaspa is really just a big, innocent boy, rather than a mature man.
When a lioness is killed, Kaspa takes over the protection of her cubs, essentially becoming the lioness. And for the rest of the film, we never see him kill as a hunter does, but always defend and protect, even at the expense of his own well-being, much as a mother will sacrifice herself for her children.
The story is simple: Kaspa was raised by lions after his parents were killed on safari. When he is grown up, he is discovered and kidnapped by circus promoters, who bring him to the States against his will to perform as a side-show attraction. There, he remains with the circus in spite of his own misery, in order to find a way to free the circus lions and take them back to Africa.
Not only is being made into a side-show curiosity an ultimate objectification, but every woman who sees Kaspa frankly drools over his breathtakingly exposed flesh. The film has no female sex objects; the object of desire in this movie is the gorgeous physique of Olympic swim champion Buster Crabbe. However, Kaspa is not particularly interested. When one woman lewdly invites him to “give her a tumble,” he replies with one of his first English words: “Scram!”
|She invites Kaspa to "give her a tumble." His reply: "Scram!"|
Unlike Tarzan, who has his sexual awakening when he sees his first woman, Jane, Kaspa never really has a full male sexual awakening. Differences in character and story account for this. In the Tarzan films, Tarzan meets Jane on his own turf – the jungle – where she is vulnerable and helpless to stop his curious advances, and he is fully in control. However, Kaspa meets his love-to-be when he is at his most vulnerable – in the city of San Francisco where he has temporarily escaped from the circus. In San Francisco, she is “king” while he is helpless – a nearly naked boy-man running wild through the city (a tradition still alive and well here, I might add).
|Kaspa meets Ann and friend. In this amusing reversal, "Adam" offers an apple to two "Eves."|
Throughout the film, Ann (Frances Dee), although ostensibly Kaspa’s love interest, is always more his protector and confidant than object of desire. And, Kaspa’s goal is never to “get” Frances or even to save himself, but instead it is to free – and thus save – the lions. His goal is neither sexual nor for his own benefit – as a typical “male” goal would be – but instead is selfless and “maternal,” as he remains steadfastly in the role of “lioness” that he assumed at the beginning of the film.
Thus Kaspa embodies not only "masculine" charactertistics but many of the "feminine" as well. He is sexual object rather than objectfier, caregiver rather than hunter, and captive rather than captor. He is a kinder, gentler, more sensitive alternative to the traditional jungle-man hero. (Perhaps we can think of him as "Tarzan as a bottom!")
|Whoever designed Buster Crabbe's loincloth gets a gold star!|
Perhaps best known as the original Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers of 1930s serials, Buster Crabbe (1908-1983) is one of my all-time favorite serial and B-Movie actors. Besides being incredibly handsome, with a beautiful swimmer's physique, he was a more competent actor than many have given him credit for. He brings a naturalness to his roles that belies his craft at creating believable, dimensional characters. Whether in westerns, sci-fi, noir, or jungle epics, he is always interesting...and always beautiful.
The following 10-minute clip from YouTube is a condensed version of the first half of King of the Jungle.
How can you see the whole film? "King of the Jungle" is hard to find on DVD, as it has not (yet) been released by a major studio. However, I was able to find a copy from vintagefilmbuffs.com, which specializes in making their own DVD transfers from original film elements.